by Tim Gordon
How Do We Honor the Greatest Force in Fashion in the 20th Century?
For over five decades, Bethann Hardison has been a groundbreaking force of nature in the world of fashion. After everything she has contributed to the industry, she finally gets her long-overdue flowers in the breathtaking documentary, Invisible Beauty.
Reared in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Hardison never conformed to what her parents wanted for her and through sheer luck, which met with opportunity became a trailblazer in the fashion industry, first as a model and later as a change agent that was so well respected that she was able to bring her peers together and make the world largest fashion houses sit up and take notice to her actions.
New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970 was a thriving melting pot filled with opportunity. Enter the young Hardison, who was discovering the city with her childhood friend when she was encouraged by famed fashion designer Willi Smith to model. A strikingly tall woman with androgynous features, Hardison was an immediate sensation boasting the type of looks unseen before in the fashion industry.
Over the course of the next few years, Hardison became the first Black “Black” model on 7th Avenue and would later become the toast of the fashion world. Her collaboration with designer Steven Burrows resulted in Hardison being invited to Paris to participate in The Battle of Versailles Fashion Show in 1973. The legendary competition pitted the U.S. designers versus French designers. After the French designers introduced their typical European fashions, Burrows and his diverse group of models led by Hardison strutted with a purpose to a standing ovation and claimed victory in the iconic battle. The result was that the show opened the door for diversity for models in the industry.
Hardison would also gain notoriety for being the first one to welcome a young Somalian model, Iman, to the industry resulting in a lifelong friendship between them. As the 1970s ended, Hardison continued to be the most established and well-known model in the industry. As successful on the catwalk as she was in the previous, Hardison changed her focus and decided to change the game in the 1980s. She formed her own modeling agency in 1984, the Bethann Management Agency. Focused on diversifying the fashion industry, introduced the world to a myriad of legendary models, including Veronica Webb, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, and Tyson Beckford, among others. Several years later, Hardison along with Iman co-founded the Black Girls to provide advocacy and support to African American models.
Much like Reggie Hudlin’s ultra-informative look at powerful mogul Clarence Avant in The Black Godfather, Hardison’s enormous contribution is spotlighted in this documentary produced by Emmy Award winner, Lisa Cortes (Little Richard: I Am Everything, All In: The Fight for Democracy, Precious). Just as Avant spent his whole life putting other people’s interests ahead of his own, Hardison’s journey is quite similar as she prided herself on pushing everyone around her, including her son Kadeem, to be the best versions of themselves. After making monumental changes in diversity in the early 1990s, Hardison decided to walk away, closing her agency, and settling in Mexico. But the realization that all the advances that she had helped achieve seemed to disappear, Hardison was called back into action. She later mobilized and united the models and agencies calling out the fashion houses demanding change.
The second of two documentaries produced by Cortes playing at Sundance, Invisible Beauty is a monumental look at the single most important individual of color in fashion history. Hardison is “one of one,” a pioneer that opened the door as a supermodel and later her vision to protect and promote young models using advocacy and holding the fashion house’s feet to the fire all the while maintaining a position “quiet revolution,” but never hating anything other than racism on the pages of fashion magazines and the catwalk. Hardison’s impact continues to burn bright almost five decades since she emerged. Invisible Beauty is a triumph of Hardison’s indomitable spirit and drive and fashion, and the world is a better place because of her enormous contributions. Here’s to the woman who gave the world so much color.